(Note 2, 7/31/08: For some reason, I thought I'd done some cursory research into work done on marginal wins in the NBA, but apparently I hadn't, because I totally missed this piece from Basketball Prospectus, this piece from RealGM, and this one from ArmchairGM.)
The most important thing to understand about Emeka Okafor's new contract is that he is PROBABLY overpaid. The second most important thing to understand is that the Bobcats have hitched their wagon to Okafor and must now respect his game and build a team to complement him rather than throwing different talents into the mix and hoping it all comes together. Finally, the third most important thing to understand about this deal is that the Bobcats are still in need of that one unique player to launch them into contention.
OKAFOR IS PROBABLY OVERPAID... I THINK, THEREFORE I HEDGE
Let's define what "overpaid" is. Imagine that every single player in the NBA was released from his contract today. Using the same contract rules in place, and the same amount of money already distributed to the players, how much would each player get paid? How much would Emeka get paid?
According to Hoops Hype, more than $1.8 billion was distributed in NBA salaries for the 2007-08 season. That means the 30 teams averaged $62.56 million of payroll this past season.
The minimum salary an NBA player could get last season was $427,163. So, it seems like the minimum team payroll for fifteen players would be roughly $6.4 million. However, the CBA prescribed a minimum of $41.72 million, or $2.78 million per player.
Let's say a team paid the minimum of $2.78 million per player and only signed freely available guys that could be acquired with little to no effort. Pulling a number out of my ass that seems right, this team should only be expected to win ten games. The very worst teams in NBA history have won that many or a few more. Nine wins is the fewest in league history.
Now imagine a totally average team. Maybe they have some better than average players, but they also have below average players to add up to an average team, both in payroll and results. They would finish with 41 wins and be paid $62.56 million.
Now we have the numbers we need to start measuring Okafor's overpaid-ness. If the very worst team you could field would win ten games while being paid $41.72 million, and the average team would win 41 games while being paid $62.56 million, then we can calculate how much NBA teams are paying for marginal wins on a team level. Note that the .122 is the winning percentage of a ten-win team.
Marginal salary per marginal win
(Player compensation - $41.72 million)
((Winning percentage - .122) x 82)
Following this formula, the average NBA team last year paid roughly $672,000 per marginal win, before the playoffs. Ideally, you want your team to pay less than this for its marginal wins.
Here's the direct corollary: Every $672,000 above $2.78 million that you pay an NBA player should be getting you a win. Paying guys below $2.78 million buys you some leeway with the other guys, but, again, if your team's salary was perfectly distributed by talent, the totally average guys would make $4.17 million for the season and salaries would go up and down from there. ($4.17 million is $62.56 million divided by fifteen roster slots.)
Granted, Okafor's contract will be played out in a different economic model than we saw in the 2007-08 season. However, let's imagine he was paid $12 million last season.
minus $2.78 million
equals $9.22 million
divided by $672,000
equals roughly 13 wins above replacement
Accounting for the rising salary cap and corresponding rising payrolls of NBA teams, I feel comfortable saying they're paying for 13 wins above replacement from Emeka. If the totally average player is roughly two wins above replacement, that means they're paying him to be 11 wins above average for each season of the contract.
In order to even approach this, he'll need to be considered a center. Among power forwards, his offensive numbers are fairly pedestrian, but as a center, Okafor's per minute scoring was 8th in the league behind Kaman, Okur, Ilgauskas, Howard, Duncan (listed as a center on ESPN), Jefferson, and Stoudemire. Those last three all slip between the PF/C designations effortlessly, I might add (and for some reason Kaman isn't listed on ESPN's stat page... weird...).
So, let's be conservative and say his total offensive production last season--noting also that his surface stats mirrored his previous seasons' performances--was somewhat above average. Remember that while he scored a good deal, he also got a bunch of rebounds, he turned the ball over exactly as often as Nazr Mohammed, who ESPN lists as 11th worst among centers in that category, and his field goal percentage would be fifth among centers on ESPN's list.
However, Okafor's defense is the reason he got paid more than Andrew Bogut, Andris Biedrins, and others. If it's true that he is among the very best defensive big men in the game--and I believe that's the consensus, though there's no good way I know of to even start to quantify that impact--then it's possible he approaches the value assigned him by this contract. Assuming an individual player's value is 50% defense, though there may be a lot less variation from best to worst than there is on offense (or there could be more, though my gut tells me that's less likely), then Okafor's elite defense plus somewhat better than average offense, as a center, might be worth $12 million per year, but I don't have the data telling me to feel comfortable with it.
IS OKAFOR THE WAY?
I spoke with a fellow Bobcats fan the other day about where the team's going. Dan said that he's just generally uninspired when he watches the team, except when Gerald Wallace is doing Gerald Wallace things. Thus arises the main dilemma from the Okafor signing. Does this mean the Bobcats have asserted an identity?
Will they build around Emeka's style or can they incorporate him into Crash's style? I frame the question that way because I'm convinced that Emeka can play to Wallace, but if Wallace has to play to Emeka, things will go poorly. In other words, who will be the soul of the team, now? Will someone else take over? Will Larry Brown screw it all up no matter what?
The worst thing they can do is maintain their weird disparate sense of team. Are they grinders or graceful high flyers? Are they bombs away or dump to the post? Nobody knows, and much like the "combo guard" epithet, I'm thinking more and more that building a team to be able to do everything usually means you've built a team to do nothing particularly well.
EVEN IF OKAFOR'S THE WAY, HE'S NOT THE ONE
One of the topics my hoops fan friends and I discussed as a branch of our Okafor conversation is how many guys are definitely capable of being the best player on a championship team. It's a vague term, intentionally encompassing intangibles and subjective impressions of guys whose stats we know inside and out. Here's the tentative list we developed, for your leisure skimming. I know you're shocked Emeka's not on it.
No consensus on these guys